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How this veteran actress went from 0 to 2 Emmy nominations in a year

Ann Dowd as Patti Levin in HBO's
Ann Dowd as Patti Levin in HBO's "The Leftovers."

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Ann Dowd has had a long and varied career as an in-demand character actress. She’s been in "The X-Files," "Freaks and Geeks," "Masters of Sex," "Olive Kitteridge" and "True Detective," just to name a few of her television roles.

And now, just this year, she’s been nominated for an Emmy Award for the very first time. In fact, she has two nominations — for her roles as Patti Levin in the HBO series, "The Leftovers," and as Aunt Lydia in Hulu’s "The Handmaid’s Tale."

Dowd stopped by The Frame studios recently to talk with John Horn about her approach to acting, and her roles in "The Handmaid's Tale" and "The Leftovers" in particular.

Interview highlights:

On gravitating toward challenging material like "The Leftovers" and "The Handmaid's Tale":

Because human beings are complex, if a role isn't complex and challenging, there's something missing, I would say. The thing that has changed for me over time is that I can drop the panic a little sooner. Because, seriously, some days you'd go in and just say, Let me just get through this on my feet. And now I just say, It's going to be hard. First several takes are going to be rough, no question. You're not going to know her all at once, you're going to have to accept that. And let's not waste time being frightened to death. That's the thing that has changed over time. It's just, Yep, this is my friend, fear, but it’s not going to run the day.

On how she absorbed the role of Aunt Lydia in "The Handmaid's Tale":

You start with the material, always. And then you read it again and then you read it again. And then I said to [series creator] Bruce Miller: What did Lydia do before, do you think? And he said she was a teacher, in his mind. Oh my gosh — that opens the door immediately. Since I love to teach — I've done so at certain periods — right away I'm in. And then I think of my own education, being educated by Catholic sisters, who in no way were cruel like Lydia. I hesitate to bring this example up because nuns get a raw deal and shouldn't. But just the notion of work ethic and how I was educated and when a job wasn't complete I was taken right back — Do it again, do it again. And then I start to think about a woman whose life was so rigidly outlined. Her belief system, you know, the narrow path, couldn't get much more narrow. Why? Why that choice, Lydia? Then you let your imagination go: Well, could she have had an abortion? Did she get pregnant at 15? And never told a soul? And promised God, If you just give me one more chance I will make sure this never happens to another person? 

On how she explains "The Leftovers" to people who aren't familiar with the series:

I say, On a given day, two percent of the population departs. And they think, Uh huh, so it's  a sci-fi kind of thing? Well, no, it's not. I don't explain a whole lot about it because I don't know how to explain it, but I do say, If you stick with this show it will change the way you think about life. It will change the way you think about loss. Now, that can either draw a person in or they can say, Thanks very much I'll check in another time ... For the real devotees of "Leftovers," you can tell immediately when you're talking to them because it just has meant so much. One wonderful journalist said, "Honestly I put my life in 'BL' and 'AL' — Before 'Leftovers' and After 'Leftovers.' I thought that was pretty extraordinary.

On her work in "Law & Order" and what that show meant to actors in New York:

Oh, we loved 'Law & Order.' They were very good to New York actors. I had some of the best experiences doing that show. I remember Jerry Orbach — he was wonderful. I had to "walk and talk" — terrifying — and land at the hospital door. And I was frantic. I thought, How will I do it each and every time? He said, "I'm going to teach you a trick." And so he took me to the end place and said, "Now, start your line here, that's your end place, and walk back." Just little things, because these were the ones who were there every day. And they saw we'd come in like deer in headlights. There were some amazing experiences on that show ... And you always felt like you really were a New York actor when you had done "Law & Order." It was just some kind of thing where you’re like, Yeah, I'm all right.

To hear the full interview, click the blue player above.

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